Jonathan Tremblay: Discrimination and Tradition: A History of the Ordination of Women

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and a Breaking News Editor for the History News Network.]

The Church of England lost fifty priests and as many as 600 of its faithful this week. These priests turned their backs on Canterbury and York and returned to the papacy in Rome. After centuries of schism between the Protestant Church of England and the Roman Catholic seat of power, these priests defected to the Vatican for one very simple reason, because the Church of England has accepted to ordain women as priests and now even as bishops.

This had me thinking on a topic that I never necessarily took a second to analyse. The Catholic Church upholds institutionalized discrimination towards women…in 2010. I wanted to know since when. I needed to know why.

Beginning in antiquity, women priestesses were mostly a novelty as the Greek and Roman worlds boasted about the inferiority of these “defective males”. Furthermore, although women held the highest sacred offices in ancient Egypt, it was still in a role of subservience as wives to Amun. The Middle East was no different with rare priestesses here and there; it was generally accepted in the ancient world that only men could dispense godly orders and favour.

In the first few centuries AD however, the Catholic faith gained momentum and shows many examples of women representatives. We even have actual epigraphic evidence showing women receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders (becoming clerics) up until the ninth century.

It is in the medieval period that theological interpretation established many of the unchangeable tenants of Catholic doctrine. Called “theological discrimination” and “Catholic misogyny” by women groups fighting for the right to represent God, the popes of Rome decided that not only were women not allowed to serve as priests, having them do so would be sacrilege of the most grievous nature.

The Vatican proposes that Jesus was a man, his apostles were all men, that a woman committed original sin and that females remain a sex of bothersome seduction. Furthermore, the Vatican holds firm that women would soil the holy functions with their monthly menstruations (seriously, women were not allowed in Catholic churches while menstruating up until the XXth century). Women’s groups such as and Roman Catholic Womanpriests propose that Jesus never excluded women from his work and saw both men and women as being created in God’s image and thus worthy of Holy Orders. The Roman Catholic Womanpriests intensified their critique of Rome this year following an official Vatican decree that the ordination of women into the Church is one of the most serious crimes against the Church (same category as child abuse) and that women receiving Holy Orders, the cleric giving them Holy Orders and all those in attendance of such a ceremony are automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church. The Womanpriests go above religion, and I completely agree, that it is “unjust and discriminatory that the males at the Vatican continue to deny us employment and decision-making within the Roman Catholic Church. This behavior is in violation of international law, our human rights, the example of Jesus and the integrity of conscience.” To conclude this discussion part with my own rebuttal, when the Vatican uses their preferred justification that Jesus was male and therefore only males can be priests, shouldn’t all priests also be Middle-Eastern, right-handed and relatively young like Jesus? Why focus on his sex when thousands of priests are black or white, two distinctive physical traits that the Messiah did not have (along with X-X chromosomes).

More progressive or more fair?

As for more recent developments and the Church of England defection, there were two very different administrations that led to this. In the Roman Catholic Church, unchanging

doctrine is actually often changing. There have been over 60 officially supported and papally-endorsed doctrines that no longer constitute Canon law. For instance, John Paul II eliminated the concept of Limbo from the faith but more terrifyingly, slavery was supported by the Vatican just until the last century when Pope Pius IX suggested that it may not be the most ethical part of the Doctrine. says it is their duty to stand up to the Church and even the pope when they know in their hearts that what they are doing is fundamentally wrong, just as a few refractory priests did in the 1800s against pro-slavery popes. Thus, Pope Benedict XVI strongly believes that Jesus said “no women priests” when choosing 12 male apostles and thus we will not get any change from Rome, at least not until the next administration. In the Church of England however, an actual committee was put in place in the early 2000 to study what Scripture says about the ordination of women. As a result, they found the Bible vague enough to allow progress and gave the right to women to become priests and now even Bishops.

After a few hours of reading, one thing is clear, or unclear, it is that the Bible does not explicitly exclude women from serving and thus the main question that has not been answered is: is the exclusion of women from becoming priests in the Catholic Church persistent and institutionalized discrimination or strict adherence to theological principles. My money is on a bit of both with a heavy lean towards the first part. The fifty priests that left England did so for one reason: to continue this policy of discrimination (against, it must be said, a sex half of the world population).

In conclusion, it has been said time and again that religions are the last to modernize but it cannot be an excuse for discrimination, prejudice and going against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights we proudly drafted up and signed in 1948 (the Vatican did not sign it). St. Peter’s has access to phones, fax machines, e-mail, a popemobile and I am pretty sure a wifi network; modernizing technology seems easy enough for the Faith but updating policy almost seems impossible because of intransigent sticking to century-old traditions that may or may not have been divinely endorsed. In the end, it comes as no surprise to me that the Catholic Church discriminates against women in what is basically their hiring policy because, like Iran, this nation state is a theocracy that does not give the right to vote to women yet. That being said, Iran is liberalizing its institutions to include women every year… It is 2010 and the Churches of Christianity have to get with the program, especially in respect to gender equality.

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